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Jeff Koons: First Major US Museum Survey in Fifteen Years at Chicago's MCA
Jeff Koons, Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Train, 1986. Collection of Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson. © Jeff Koons.

CHICAGO.- The contemporary artist and provocateur Jeff Koons is one of the most well known and intriguing artists of the 20th century. The seductive surfaces, luxurious scale and quality, and flawless execution of his works – many of which have become icons, such as Rabbit, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, and Puppy – transform everyday objects and fantasies into high art. After presenting the first survey of Koons’ work in 1988, the MCA is revisiting the work of this seminal figure in contemporary art, exploring his powerful influence on contemporary art and his significance for a new generation. The exhibition Jeff Koons, on view May 31 to September 21, 2008, is his first major US museum survey in fifteen years and will only be presented in Chicago.

Jeff Koons worked closely with the MCA to create a carefully selected survey focusing on his most iconic works from the 1980s to the present. The exhibition reveals relationships between the artist’s works both through and across series, surveying Koons’ career from the celebrated sculptures of the 1980s to new paintings completed in 2007. One of his most recognized recent pieces, Hanging Heart (Blue/Silver), will hang from the MCA's atrium ceiling as a centerpiece to the exhibition.

Koons mirrors society's obsession with popular culture and negates simple divisions between appearance and reality, surface and depth, and art and commodity. With roots in Pop, Conceptual, and Minimalist art, Koons models his sculptures on consumer products and manipulates store-bought items to dramatize mass-produced cultural objects while exposing the subtleties of marketing. But unlike his 1960s predecessors, Koons’ agenda is to address people’s psychological investment in consumer objects and how these objects are designed to seduce. “My work,” says Koons, “will use every possible opportunity. It will employ all possible tricks and do everything – really everything – to communicate and win the viewer over.”

The exhibition features iconic works from each of Koons' series: Pre-New and New “I have always used cleanliness and a form of order to maintain for the viewer a belief in the essence of the eternal, so that the viewer does not feel so threatened economically. When under economic pressure you start to see disintegration around you. Things do not remain orderly. So I have always placed order in my work not out of respect for Minimalism but to give the viewer a sense of economic security.”

The first two series, Pre-New and New, draw upon the American public’s desire for new consumer products. Referencing methods of display in retail stores and museums, Koons mounted mass-produced consumer goods such as Hoover vacuum cleaners, and placed them within airtight Plexigas vitrines as if preserved artifacts. Koons elevation of everyday objects to symbols of desire explores cultural value judgments and the public’s quest for status, permanence, and “the new.”

Equilibrium - “The show was about equilibrium, and the ads defined personal and social equilibrium. There is also the deception of people acting as if they have accomplished their goals and they haven’t: ‘Come on! Go for it! I have achieved equilibrium!’ Equilibrium is unattainable; it can be sustained only for a moment. And here are these people in the role of saying, ‘Come on! I’ve done it! I’m a star! I’m Moses!’ It’s about artists using art for social mobility. Moses [Malone] is a symbol of the middle-class artist of our time who does the same act of deception, a front man: ‘I’ve done it! I’m a star! ... And the bronzes were the tools for Equilibrium that would kill you if you used them. So the underlying theme, really, was that death is the ultimate state of being. What was paralleling this message was that white middle-class kids have been using art the same way that other ethnic groups have been using basketball -- for social mobility.”

Created in 1985 for his first solo exhibition, Equilibrium, the show included basketballs floating in display tanks, along with cast bronze lifesaving gear, a diver’s vest, an inflatable lifeboat, and a snorkel. Framed advertising posters of American basketball heroes wearing Nike clothing and surrounded by basketballs continue the artist’s examination of consumption and the desire for lasting perfection. Similar to the New series, the tanks and the bronze works cannot fulfill their intended function; however, Koons changes the objects’ materiality to make connections between objects, their economic and cultural value, and public perception.

Luxury and Degradation - “Coming from these wombs and the masculine color of Equilibrium, all these internal areas, Luxury and Degradation is much more sociological. I just rode the subways here in New York. And I would go from one economic area, from Harlem, to the other, Grand Central Station. I got the whole spectrum of advertising. You deal with the lowest economic base to the highest level. I realized how the level of visual abstraction is changing. The more money comes into play, the more abstract. It was like they were using abstraction to debase you, because they always want to debase you.”

In this series, exhibited in 1986, Koons presents a view of consumerist decadence by appropriating images and objects related to the marketing and consumption of alcohol. Luxury and Degradation features precisely reproduced paintings of liquor advertisements and stainless steel alcohol-related items ranging from children’s toys to Baccarat Crystal sets. The series reflects a variety of consumer income levels and tastes that are united in a desire for status and power through conspicuous consumption.

Statuary - “This was to show that if you put art in the hands of a monarch, which Louis XIV was a symbol of, it would become reflective of their ego, and eventually become decorative. And if you put art in the hands of the masses, which Bob Hope was a symbol of, that eventually art would become decorative. And if you put art in the hands of Jeff Koons, it will eventually reflect my ego and also eventually become decorative.”

Similar to Luxury and Degradation created the same year, Koons conceived of Statuary as a panoramic view of society. The sculptures, all made of stainless steel, draw from a range of art historical themes and sources from the bust of Louis XIV, to the figure of Bob Hope, to an inflatable bunny. For Koons, stainless steel simulates the economical security of luxurious objects. Because he aims to address the entire social spectrum with his art, he uses the democratic material of stainless steel rather than bronze or gold which historically have been materials associated with the elite social classes.

Banality - “I don’t see a Hummel figurine as tasteless, I see it as beautiful. I see it and respond to the sentimentality of the work. I love the finish, how simple the color green can be painted. I like things being seen for what they are. It’s like lying in the grass and taking a deep breath. That’s all my work is trying to do, to be as enjoyable as that breath.”

The works in Koons' Banality series in 1988, made in porcelain, ceramic, or poly-chromed wood, draw on images and icons in popular culture and often combined people and animals with ambiguous sexual undertones such as in Pink Panther. While the series continues Koons' use of common objects in the New series and his use of kitsch in the Statuary series, Banality offers a distinct shift in scale. Enlarged, these monumental works challenge the relationship Koons questioned earlier between art and commodity, as well as between sublime art and banal taste, and valuable sculpture and cheap kitsch.

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